Howard McNear will forever be associated with his role as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show. He deserves credit for crafting another iconic television character, one that he never played onscreen. In the original Gunsmoke radio program, from 1952-61, McNear portrayed Doc Adams. The writers initially conceived Doc as a dark, greedy character. Heck, the name “Doc Adams” was a homage to Charles Addams, creator of the morbid Addams Family. But McNear’s warm personality and increasingly sympathetic performances turned the character into the kind-hearted physician we know and love, the one played perfectly by Milburn Stone on the TV show.
McNear was an old pro on the radio by that point. His career over the radio airwaves dated back to the 1930s. Like so many successful radio actors, he eventually made the leap to pictures.
The California native turned up in dozens of early television series, unsurprisingly playing trusted tradesmen. He was Little Ricky’s music teacher on I Love Lucy and a friendly plumber with a ridiculous name (Cuthbert Jantzen) on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.
But he would become best known as a barber. And The Andy Griffith Show was not his first time holding a pair of scissors.
In 1958, McNear landed a small part in a coming-of-age tale on Leave It to Beaver. Wally flashes his skills as a freshman in a football game, which makes his old pal Eddie Haskell jealous. To prove his superior manhood, Eddie, in turn, brags about how he’s begun shaving. Wally’s unripened peach fuzz makes him green with envy, so he “borrows” Ward’s razor to run over his few, faint hairs. Naturally, he mangles his face. This leads to some stern parenting from Ward, and a sore (on both his face and in his heart) Wally.
In the end, all is well as the episode wraps up inside a barbershop, manned by a friendly barber. What better man to play the barber than Howard McNear? Ironically, his character’s name is “Andy.” It just has a friendly ring to it.
McNear later moved his fictional barbershop from Mayfield to Mayberry, where he became the beloved Floyd Lawson.
He was not the first man to play Floyd. For a single episode in season one, Walter Baldwin portrayed the Mayberry barber. By the next episode, however, McNear had settled into the role and immediately made it his own. Over the seasons, Floyd’s role became more and more prominent on the series. But you might notice a significant gap in his credits between seasons three and four.
In 1963, McNear suffered a debilitating stroke that nearly paralyzed the left side of his body. Andy Griffith, along with the rest of the cast and crew, encouraged their adored costar to carry on. McNear stayed on The Andy Griffith Show, as writers accommodated the actor by having his character sit in most scenes. If Floyd was required to stand, it was with “the aid of a special jig the men in the crew built for him,” according to a newspaper column from 1976.
McNear would leave The Andy Griffith Show in 1967. Two years later, he passed away. But he will forever remain the iconic barber of the television universe.